It’s quiz time at MovieFanFare. Study the picture below carefully:
Now, your question:
At what stage does the woman depicted here lose her right to say “no” to sexual intercourse? Is it at stage (1), when she enters a bar dressed in a “provocative” manner? Or is it at stage (2), after she has had a few drinks and returns a man’s flirtatious leer with a smile of her own? Does she forfeit her choice to refuse sex at stage (3), when she dances to a song on the jukebox, her sensual movements causing loose clothing to fall away and reveal more of her body?
Or, is one man (or more) only entitled to physically subdue her at the stage when a kiss is exchanged?
Pencils down. That didn’t take very long…did it?
In the highly unlikely event you had trouble with that quiz in the least, you would clearly be less (shocked, surprised, bothered, offended) by the re-emergence of rape and women’s reproductive rights as persistent topics of cultural “controversy” than I am. What was surprising to me about revisiting director Jonathan Kaplan’s 1988 message-drama The Accused, in the wake of these high-profile conversations, was how much I felt the film was designed to play—in 1988, at least—as a morality play of some troubling complexity.
Who looks at this movie today and has difficulty figuring out whether or not Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster, in an Oscar-winning performance) maintains the right to possess exclusive control over her body at all times? On this repeat viewing, I found many fascinating parallels to Dead Man Walking, a “capital punishment” picture released seven years later. In both films, we’re pushed to reconsider a moral issue the filmmakers believe we might be thinking about in a simplistic way.
In Dead Man Walking, Tim Robbins’ superlative drama based on the book written by Catholic nun Helen Prejean, the moral force behind instituting the death penalty is successfully made cloudy—to me, anyway—by the film’s careful, and yet very passionate, treatment of all the players involved as fully three-dimensional characters. Prejean, the families of killer Matthew Poncelet’s victims, the guards who carry out their duties in the death chamber, even Poncelet—are shown to be capable of love, hate, despair, blind rage, and moral uncertainty. That film has maintained its power to challenge, if for no other reason than the issue it focuses on remains an unresolved conflict in our society at large.
The Accused, a film of no less passion when it comes to exploring the issue of rape—and, like the Robbins film, based on a true story—seems more dated to me today, while still being very worthwhile viewing thanks to a canny script and some very dedicated acting from the lead players. It’s particularly striking, in the first few minutes of the film, how much it seems Foster’s character is violated over and over again after surviving a brutal gang rape (the details of which are held for us until the last third of the film), when she is interrogated and examined for evidence in the hospital—and that her “violators,” however well-intentioned, are all women.
Equally of note is the fact that the most damning of challenges to Foster’s character are made by her own advocate, played by Kelly McGillis (herself a real-life survivor of rape)—by way of the many conversations between them meant to prepare Foster for the beating she is sure to take on the witness stand.
Have you ever made love to more than one man at a time? It’s the kind of question you’re going to be asked on the stand. You’re also going to be asked…if any other man has ever hit you and if you liked it. You’re going to be asked about your drug bust and how many drinks a day you have to ‘smooth out the edges,’ and how many joints. And how often you go to bars alone and whether or not you wear underwear when you go to them and which diseases you’ve caught and how many abortions you’ve had, and I will object to all of those questions. And sometimes the judge will sustain me, and sometimes not.
And sometimes not.
Let’s add some more “stages” to our quiz and repeat the question:
When does a woman abdicate her authority of consent?
When she drinks? When she smokes a joint? When she goes to a bar not wearing underwear? After she has slept with more than one man at a time? After she’s caught a venereal disease? After she’s had an abortion?
Does this new round of questions seem any harder to answer back, and answer back with clarity? I’m a fully-functioning man, which is to say I come to the human race possessed of the same animal nature as every other member of the team; like you no doubt, I am also grown-up enough to recognize that upbringing and cultural biases inform those more primitive aspects of the human personality. Ideally, succeeding generations are more enlightened and, as that well-worn saw goes, the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice, as each new generation of young people is taught more—and is taught better.
It’s disheartening to see that arc twisted backwards—but when a decidedly all-masculine panel of medical and religious “authorities” is convened to adjudicate issues of women’s healthcare; when elected officials believe, even for a moment, that “legitimate” rape can be either defined by marriage status or used to concoct biologically-incorrect excuses to infringe upon reproductive liberties; when female sexual licentiousness is associated with the use of contraceptives (and a ridiculous misapprehension of how they work); when the “female libido,” and a woman’s power and obligation to “control” it, becomes the prima facie solution to unwanted pregnancies? Well, those are times that are getting darker, rather than more enlightened.
When you look at the crowd of men in the shadowy game room of the Mill Bar, cheering hold her down, make her moan, smell that new blood—you see authentic portrayals of “rape culture” in action. That term might have been coined in the 1970s, but you only need to look around some popular social networking sites in the most cursory fashion to see it much in discussion today among the women who perceive it enjoying some manner of sad revival.
Or maybe it never really went away. Maybe The Accused isn’t as dated as I imagine. Maybe when the excruciating rape scene begins to unfold in the film, as Jodie Foster’s character enters the bar wearing a leather jacket, smoking a cigarette, and narrowing her eyes slightly, some viewers might still meet that shot with the kind of slimy judgment it may have more easily inspired in the ‘80s: Damn, she’s a real slut. Was she just ‘asking for it’? She’s dancing like a stripper. No wonder. Got what she deserved, I guess. Hard to tell who’s really at fault here, isn’t it?
Let’s not forget, too, the flurry of enthusiasm recently displayed by some heads of state for enacting laws designed to mandate medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds. Among some, penetration by force of law is all the rage.
Why can’t she just control herself?